Melanie Myers is the author of Meet Me at Lennon’s, a Brisbane-based writer, academic, and occasional actor, with a Doctorate of Creative Arts. Her short fiction and articles have been published in a variety of publications, including Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Arena Magazine, Griffith Review and Hecate.
Today, Melanie’s on the blog to talk about her new novel and the compelling true story of the women who were caught up in the infamous fight in 1942 between Australian and US soldiers that became known as the Battle of Brisbane. Read on!
I was in my final year of high school when the ABC mini-series Come in Spinner, based on the 1951 novel by Dymphna Cusack and Florence James, aired in 1990. As someone who loved old Hollywood films from the 1930s and ’40s, I was easily taken in by the stylised glamour of the TV series and its focus on women’s lives of the era. Superficially, I loved the look of the early 1940s – its music and fashion etc. – and had that feeling of nostalgia people get for a decade they never lived through. I also grew up knowing both my grandmothers had served in World War II – one in the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service) and the other in the WAAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force) – and so it was that my interest in the war years, and the Australian home front, in particular, eventually turned into a serious research topic and something I wanted to write about in a novel.
I started researching the era in earnest in 2005 when writing my first manuscript and became more interested in the period from a social history and feminist point of view. In this (thankfully) unpublished novel, my contemporary protagonist discovers a diary written by a great aunt during World War II. Like Come in Spinner, the novel is set in Sydney, where I was born and lived at the time. As well as learning about Sydney during the war years, I also discovered it wasn’t all swing bands and victory rolls, but was a time of huge social disruption and uncertainty. Aside from the constant worry over male relatives and husbands serving overseas, women were mobilised into the workforce – thanks to the dictates of ‘Manpower’ – and allowed to perform jobs traditionally only available to men. They also experienced a degree of unprecedented sexual freedom, due in no small part to the arrival of the Americans to our shores, though not without government-sponsored public shaming and societal disapproval, it should be added.
After I moved back to Queensland from Sydney, I was ready to have another go at writing a home-front novel and, this time, I wanted to set it in Brisbane. Thanks to Come in Spinner, I had assumed – like many Australians, I’d venture – that the ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ story was more or less a Sydney one. My earlier research revealed, however, that Brisbane had felt the effects of the ‘friendly invasion’ of American troops far more than any other Australian city. What was a defining historical moment for Brisbane had essentially been hijacked to become a Sydney story – framed by a good-looking harbour, better architecture, and a heightened reputation for scandal and vice. By 1943, there were some 85,000 American troops stationed in and around Brisbane – a city of only 300,000 people at the time – and it’s that story I wanted to tell, particularly in relation to young women of the time.
My research was more thorough and painstaking this time. As with my first novel, I spent a lot of time trawling through newspapers from the era – a much easier task this time around as they’re now digitally archived on Trove. I also spent time at the Queensland State Library viewing original documents and ephemera, and the Queensland State Archives looking through original wartime police files and reports on sexual offences committed by US soldiers. Learning intimate facts about real victims and reading detailed descriptions of what happened to them was a deeply affecting experience – so much so I ended up writing that experience as a scene in the contemporary narrative thread that weaves through the book.
Though I wrote Meet Me at Lennon’s before the #metoo movement was underway, I think of it as a sort of #ourgrandmotherstoo book. Much has obviously changed a lot for women since the 1940s – backyard abortions, thankfully, are a thing of the past in Australia – and while the book highlights the aspects that have changed for the better, it also points out how some things have not really changed at all, or nearly enough. There are still men who try to control women, who treat them with contempt and loathing, who sexually assault and abuse them. In Australia, on average, as we know, one woman per week is killed by an intimate partner or ex-partner, and one in five women has experienced sexual violence. While Meet Me at Lennon’s mirrors past and present as way of showing this, the novel is partly about the role, and limits, of historical fiction as a means to correct the wrongs of the past.
The question I hope readers of Meet Me at Lennon’s take away with them is whether or not it is possible to reanimate the past in order to name and shame men who enact violence against women, even if any definitive evidence has been erased.
Meet Me at Lennon's
Winner of the 2018 Queensland Literary Award Glendower Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.
As university student Olivia Wells sets out on her quest to find an unpublished manuscript by Gloria Graham – a now obscure mid-twentieth century feminist and writer – she unwittingly uncovers details about a young woman found murdered. Strangled with a nylon stocking in the mangroves on the banks of the river in wartime Brisbane, the case soon became known as the river girl murder...